Maya means illusion: a grimoire of three films by Maya Deren

by: , May 14, 2019

© Screenshot from Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945/46) dir. Maya Deren


Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)


Road: hand deposits flower, disappears.

Shadow of a girl arrives: her hand picks up flower

Distant figure disappearing around curve of road

Girl’s shadow on door, hand knocks, tries door [1]


The house nestles soft as a sleeping cat. You live inside these rooms as wife and witch. Nerves tuned to the subtle fibres of the drapes you make a simple invocation; to turn the inside out. The instrument weighs heavy as a clockwork father or spring-wound husband. But these incantations call for another language. First, take possession; make of this seeing-eye a body. One must at least begin with the body feeling. [2]


Hands get key from purse, key slips, falls.

Hand, reaching for key, misses, key bounces away

Hand finally catching key

Hand with key unlocks door, pushes it open


The house awakens and uncurls itself. The instrument pulses. It recalls how in poems, protest, trance and dance you dreamt your body multiple. It remembers when you sat séance at the window, spinning many selves out of phonograph rotations. This is where the afternoon begins; with agitations on the breeze, unrest diffused in yellow light. When you inhabit these rooms again you will be everywhere, and all at once.


Her hand in languorous caress of her body

Of her eye, closing with sleepiness

Of eye, getting dimmer, sleep coming

Of eye, settling into sleep


The house is yours but unknown to you. The instrument has rearranged its limbs. Objects of love and work are charged for your attention. The telephone, the butter knife, the marriage bed, the phonograph. You must encounter each as an element of an anagram that spells out violence and desire in any combination. The instrument directs you, as organ, as muscle. Projected forth as slip silhouette you follow, into sleep. Under the self-touch gaze the first of many selves unbuckles. The instrument telescopes time, and outside, the shadow-side circumnavigates the stucco walls. Your double-self is a dream girl.


Black bedroom curtain blowing, girl comes through it

Of knife, girl’s face reflected in it

Fall now as if floating against a ceiling of stairs, in space

Girl floats down through top arch of stairway


The house is conspiratorial. The instrument flattens time. Shadow-side takes figure form, ponderous and shrouded. Dream girl can’t reach the mirror, so the cycle begins again. Passing the knife on the stair, the instrument agonises body motion. The gravity of these rooms is deviant; at once too heavy and too light. With your fingers instruct the instrument to thwart and threaten, to drag you back and force you up. You navigate these rooms as bat or spectre; body propelled by some fugitive force. The instrument has possessed you by motor-motion.


1st dream girl looking through window, seen from outside

Dream girl no.1 drawing house key from her mouth

Dream girl no.2 enters door, looking back at mirror-figure

Dream girl no.2 starts upstairs, tilt and rock from side to side


The house is a labyrinth. The instrument is shedding figments, casting visions. Another self is peeled from sleep. The instrument issues a summons; your three dream girls quicken to the kitchen table. In conference, you must gather threads, conjoin orders of time, break the curse with counter-curse. Performing a double-trick, the instrument conflates knife and key. Both pertain to thresholds, between doors and chambers, life and death. Dream girl three is your familiar and your antagonist. To protect against morbid revelations she dons goggles, mirrored against the shadow-side. The instrument makes of her a frame-filling giantess. She will cross continents in sandaled strides.


Close-up her hand in self-caress at conference

Her hand reaches key on table, turns it over as if drawing a card

Head rising into sky, as if she were monstrously tall

Her feet take stride on beach, against sea in black


The house is mortifying. The instrument scalps spring-wound husband from a nightmare. He is shadow side, dark underside. He palms the knife brandished by dream girl three. His touch is a death warrant, his face a mirror-self. Dream girl throws first, and the instrument washes waves over shards of glass. Flash cut. This house is his. The instrument follows as he traces the steps you made before sleep. Pan around room. In the self-touch chair you are a corpse now. Your body prone, heavy with three dream-girls. Elinka, Lenore, Eleanora. But the instrument has plunged you elsewhere. The instrument has made you Maya.


Man’s face, a mirrored reflection, is shattered

Man reaching top of stairs, picks up flower

Man’s head looks around room

Girl’s face, eyes closed, with bits of broken mirror and seaweed, and a little blood running from the corner of the mouth

© Screenshot from Meshes in the Afternoon (1943) dir. Maya Deren


At Land (1944)


Wave rolls back, leaving body of girl clutching seaweed

Girl’s face in sand, eyes open as if for some time

Girl notices tree trunk over her, reaches up to grab hold

Close-up through web of tree as she begins to pull up


The quest begins with revelation. In the house, you learn the first utterances of the instrument. Speaking through it you unravel time, unpick the hem of lived reality. But the instrument will not speak mother tongue until you travel with it. That afternoon you found yourself in fragments; you were multitudes and the house could not contain you. Maya is your conjuration, the coherence of your many selves. The instrument returns her from the sea. She wakes up on the shore below Mount Misery Point, named for the day the women lost their fishermen to the squall. [3] Maya is your siren. Woman is her own medium. [4]


Hand grasping edge of table, head coming up to eye level

Long view of table, people sitting at it talking, with effort her head starts up and forward

Her toes find foothold in the tree trunk, knee arrives on table top

Her swimming through brush


The quest will be volatile. Nothing in this universe is stable; the unity of space, the linearity of time, are atomised like grains of sand. The instrument is tuned to this. To hold fast to her identity, woman moves the world and is moved by it. Maya embodies the instrument. Maya enfolds it inwards and enacts its magic. To fulfil the quest, Maya transcends the limits of the body to traverse imagined geographies. This is what it means for you to hold the instrument.


Her crawling along table top

Close-up chess board as man’s hand completes move

Close-up her face looking down at chess board

Animated chess board, black pawn rolls to edge and off


The quest is ludic. The instrument swims Maya underwater through the buried memories of tree roots. ‘One has to believe in the depths.’ [5] She emerges at the table deft forceful as a chess queen. Her movements are not hidden but her strategy is covert; her invisibility is visible. You make her movements diagonal; she crosses places as spaces on the board, unhindered. Against the queen, the instrument casts men powerless as pawns and changeable as weather.


Girl standing in chandeliered room all draped in white

Body of man defined, looking up at her

Girl looking up at him, holding cat which she lets spring away

Her approaching door, opening it, going out


The quest is exhausting. The instrument seizes the queen with ulterior force. Maya climbs from room to rock in pursuit, but the queen evades her. It is claimed by the wild time of winds and tide. You know what it is to fall ‘close to the root.’ [6] With the instrument, possess Maya’s motor centres and automate her pulse. Show how consciousness is burden. When her feet find land, transform the rock face to a watch tower.


Her reflection in water as she walks

Girl walks along with long shadow, bending to pick something up

She bends down to pick up more stones

The too-many in her arms begin to fall as she does so


The quest is mythological and leaves no trace. Maya gathers stones so she will not be found. The instrument finds two women playing chess by the sea. You have already plotted the moves; the chess board maps the territory of Maya’s quest. Check-mate: the queen piece falls. Make the instrument vanish the girls as Maya claims the queen. You imagine a reverse Odyssey; the subjective journey returning the woman not to home but to freedom. The instrument replays Maya’s quest with the associative rhythm of a dream. Like the hurricane that transforms the shore from pebble to sand, she sweeps the beach. The instrument knows Maya is elemental, and you set her loose.


Her face running against dead trees with setting sun travelling with her

Running through time of rock river

Running through time of table

Running through time of first shore


© Screenshot from At Land (1944) dir. Maya Deren


Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945/46)


Maya starts feeding wool as if someone behind her

Rita raises arm into somnambulist position

Rita enters room, picks up ball of wool, sits down, starts winding

Back and forth between Rita and Maya as wool is fed and wound


The dance has been with you for a long time. Dance is transformation and transmission, labour and elation. Dance is magic reality; muscular metaphysics. In the quest, you forge Maya’s identity through the integrity of movement. But with the instrument you return her to the sea, release her from the codes and confines of sociality, personality. Maya deviates from all those ‘what-not’ patterns of the normal. Dance is a deviant mechanism. This time, Maya presides over a dance ritual. She moves through space and inhabits time by choreographic order of the instrument.


Rita reaches interior of party room, turns full and looks at where she came from

Rita turning back to party, pan across group of people, conversational movement

Grouping movement, first repetition, pulling away, turning reverse, converse

Relationship movement at threshold moment


The dance unravels from two women intertwined. Rita, like Maya, is a manifestation of the abstract order. The women are distinct yet inseparable, embodiments of the duality of conscious thought and dream. To commence the ritual, Maya unwinds time. Rita gathers time to her. The instrument enacts this. The skein of wool is the ancestral thread that binds them; hand to hand, body to body. Maya spins slowly into her own material. Her efforts are exhaustive, ecstatic. Rita submits to wool-gathering. Freed of the skein, Maya dissipates. She is subsumed into Rita, draped over her as widow’s weeds. The ritual begins at the threshold.


Hands with palms up, emphasise the coming relationship, ask each other questions.

Do not move too fast – but constantly, action follows impulse

Details of eye movements, hair movements, hand and head movements

Frank and Rita meeting


The dance is a social whirl. Beyond the threshold, the room is filled with smoke and people. The instrument compels Rita forward. Emptying each individual of motivation, the instrument extracts dance from all that is unsaid, unseen. Bodies converge in a democracy of becoming. The instrument transfers its energies; repetition, suspension, action, inaction. Social confusion acquires mythic grace. The pulse of the instrument ascends into primeval rhythm. To unstitch herself, Rita dances into another time with Frank, a vessel carved of stone and sinew.


Waltz rhythm, revealing dancers and exterior, movement changes into next movement

New girl comes to Frank, he switches to her, Rita looks back and forth for partner

Maya stands on edge watching

Expressions pass from languorous lasciviousness to hysterical anxiety


The dance is petrifying. The essential alchemy of the instrument is stillness. Muses engaged in a game of statues trouble the boundary between animate life and inanimate things. Rita must resist the condemnation of courtship: with each leap and reach the stone-man threatens to subsume her in concrete time. Maya understands the game but exists elsewhere. The muses spin into suspension, folding flat into the crevices between this time and another. Duration stretches over Rita’s ligaments. The essential force of the instrument is motion. Rita runs, dilating swathes of time with each foot fall.


Frank whirls into freeze

Rita runs in close-up, looking backwards

Frank, far away, running forward in slow motion, sort of leaping

Her expression changing from horror to pleasure, or rather to relief


The dance plunges into the depths. You desire lightness and submersion. You felt the instrument pull you under and hold you aloft. Maya and Rita, woven together as parts of the whole, synthesise into forms that only the instrument can conjure. The duality of woman floats as astral projection, as celestial impression. The ritual culminates in metamorphosis. Winter to spring; widow to bride. Maya has shown you what the instrument can do. Now return her to the sea.


Girl floats as if in astronomical coffin

Face in negative, eyes open in negative

Widow’s weeds in negative are bridal dress

Approach to the moon

Reaches as if for lover, smiles

© Screenshot from Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945/46) dir. Maya Deren


[1] All interludes in italics are adapted from Maya Deren’s original shooting scripts and notes for Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, and Ritual in Transfigured Time, reprinted in VéVé A. Clark, Millicent Hodson & Catrina Neiman (eds) (1988), The Legend of Maya Deren: Volume 1, Part 2, ‘Chambers’ (1942-47), New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture.

[2] Maya Deren (1980), ‘From the Notebook of Maya Deren, 1947’, October, Vol. 14 (Autumn 1980), p. 22.

[3] Maya Deren, (1965 [c.1946-48]), ‘Planning by Eye: Notes on “Individual” and “Industrial” Film’, Film Culture, No.39 (Winter 1965), p. 36.

[4] Maya Deren (1980), ‘From the Notebook of Maya Deren, 1947’, October, Vol. 14 (Autumn 1980), p. 22.

[5] Maya Deren, ‘Notes on “FIP” (Film in Progress)’, in VéVé A. Clark, Millicent Hodson & Catrina Neiman (eds) (1988), The Legend of Maya Deren: Volume 1, Part 2, ‘Chambers’ (1942-47), New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, p. 192.

[6] Maya Deren, ‘Notes on “FIP” (film in progress)’, in VéVé A. Clark, Millicent Hodson & Catrina Neiman (eds) (1988), The Legend of Maya Deren: Volume 1, Part 2, ‘Chambers’ (1942-47), New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, p. 192.

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